Jack Kelly: Democrats don't seem to mind the Electoral College now

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As morose conservatives search for silver linings in the cloud of gloom that descended upon us Nov. 6, one sliver of silver is that liberals are likely now to put on the back burner their efforts to dismantle the Electoral College.

The customary effect of the Electoral College is to magnify the margin of victory of the winner of the popular vote, as it did this time. If Mitt Romney had gotten fewer than half a million votes more in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado, he'd be president-elect. But President Barack Obama won a landslide in the Electoral College, 332-206.

In four of 57 presidential elections, however, the popular vote winner lost the election.

• In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote in a four-way race, but lost to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives when Henry Clay (who was Speaker of the House) threw his support to Adams in exchange for appointment as Secretary of State.

• In 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won 51 percent of the popular vote, but lost by a single vote in the Electoral College to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes when -- in a deal to end Reconstruction -- all the disputed votes of South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana were awarded to Hayes.

• In 1888, President Grover Cleveland got 48.6 percent of the popular vote in his bid for re-election, eight-tenths of a percentage point more than the 47.8 percent Republican Benjamin Harrison received, but lost in the Electoral College, 233-168. Cleveland racked up big popular vote margins in the South, but lost by much narrower margins in the Northeast and Midwest. The president lost New York -- his home state -- by less than 1 percentage point, chiefly because Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City, opposed him.

• In 2000, Al Gore got 48.4 percent of the popular vote, half a percentage point more than George W. Bush's 47.9 percent, but lost in the Electoral College, 271-266, when Mr. Bush won Florida by 587 votes. It was this election that prompted efforts by some Democrats to have the winner of the national popular vote declared the winner of the election.

Special circumstances that won't ever be repeated were the reasons why the popular vote winners lost in 1824 and 1876. In 1888 and 2000, the popular vote winner won by a percentage point or less. This doesn't justify changing the conception that the United States is a union of states that granted only partial sovereignty to the federal government. But Democrats haven't much regard for the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution.

Democrats care about winning and aren't particular about how they do it. Which is why the Electoral College is getting a reprieve. Now that it appears to provide Democrats with an advantage, they're concluding the Founding Fathers had a pretty good idea after all.

That's good, because abolition of the Electoral College would be an invitation to voting fraud on a mind-boggling scale. Without it, we could never again have a recount if an election were as close as those in 1876, 1888 or 2000 because recounting all the votes would be out of the question.

Under the Constitution, states may apportion their electoral votes among their congressional districts, with the two for their U.S. senators going to the popular vote winner in the state. Only Maine (four electoral votes) and Nebraska (five) do this. If every state did, the already remote possibility that the popular vote winner would lose in the Electoral College would diminish.

If electoral votes were cast by congressional districts, recounts could be restricted to districts where the outcome was in doubt or chicanery was suspected. This would reduce substantially the consequences of voting fraud.

Currently, presidential candidates campaign only in about a dozen swing states. They visit California, Texas, New York and Illinois just to raise funds. But in the dark blue and dark red states, there are districts the other candidate could carry. If electoral votes were cast by congressional district, national elections would be national. What a concept!


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476). This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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